Edwin Gragert: Bridging Borders, Both Real and Imagined
Credit: Peter Hoey
As Edwin Gragert, executive director of iEARN-USA, tells it, the nonprofit organization was founded on the belief that students working in teams and using technology to bridge international borders would become "global citizens, who recognize that the way you deal with the world's issues is by working together." Two decades later, iEARN (the International Education and Resource Network), which started with the establishment of a telecommunications connection between twelve schools in New York State and twelve others in Moscow, administers programs in 120 countries in which some 2 million students participate.
Gragert still believes one of iEARN's most important missions is promoting collaboration, both as a learning tool and an end in itself. To that end, iEARN's programs focus on combining technological tools with the social, emotional, and intellectual skills that enable strong, productive teamwork. The emphasis, Gragert says, is on honoring different perspectives, incorporating different points of view, and utilizing the array of abilities an international team of students can bring to problem solving and the completion of joint projects.
Given what the planet faces in the years ahead, the wisdom of the iEARN philosophy, and the millions of students benefiting from it, provide ample reason for hope. "Whether it's global warming, poverty, or conflict in general," says Gragert, "if we don't have a process by which students learn to address these issues by working together, they won't be addressed."
Perhaps the greatest benefit of learning to work effectively in international teams is that it empowers students to be effective global citizens. Projects sponsored by iEARN have included student teams working together to chart bird migration, produce literary anthologiesand video documentaries, and improve the water quality of streams near their homes. Seeing that their research, plans, and actions can bring about positive changes in the world they're growing up in not only changes the way students see the future, it also actually changes the future.
To many of us, Gragert says, the world's problems seem so insurmountable that we give up on a solution without even trying. The collaborative aspect of iEARN, he adds, "gives students a sense that by working together they can address a curriculum project, but they also can address larger issues because the technology allows them to no longer be just one, but to be 10, 20, 1 million working together to solve the same problem."
How do you use the Web or other technology in your work?
We predate the Web by about six or seven years. We learned early on that what's important is the concept of building community and relationships. Before social networking became in vogue, we had working student groups get to know each other and share ideas.
Everything we do is available on our Web site -- we have videoconferencing, real-time chats, social-networking tools -- but we've also made sure people who don't have access to the Internet can participate fully. When we are in a country such as Ghana or Uganda, we don't say, "Here's the Web site -- now go participate." What we do is bridge those technologies behind the scenes. If you have 24/7 broadband Web access, you can do anything in our network. But if you have access to a cyber café only once a month to do a little email, you still can do anything in our network.
The voices of students can be heard even though they don't have access to the Web. It's been very difficult to bridge both sides of the street, but that's one of our commitments.
Which resources have inspired you and informed your work?
The resources that both students and teachers bring are the ones that provide constant inspiration, because they're the ones that share with us how you can actually use this technology. Ultimately, iEARN is not a technology organization. Our participants use technology, but it's how they use it that's inspirational.
Who are your role models?
Somebody asked me who my hero was, and I said it was my daughter, Alisa. Here's a kid who grew up with technology and yet went off to live in Spain for a year at age fifteen, went off to live in the West Bank and Beirut to learn Arabic at age eighteen. She's the one who used technology to go directly to people and work on the classroom level as a teenager. She once was online with some students in Kurdistan -- who she was working with for a couple of years through iEARN -- and said, "Wouldn't it be great if I had a chance to meet them?" So the three of us got on a plane and went to Kurdistan, in Central Asia, to meet the family of these girls.
She's my hero because she gets the fact that the power of this technology is the connections you can make between people, and the human value it brings. To me, the benefit of the Web, the Internet, is that connective potential. My heroes are people who can see how the technology can benefit those around them.
What advice would you give those who consider you a role model?
To constantly challenge. To constantly ask tough questions. Constantly say, "Well, what's next?" And constantly be dissatisfied with what's happened so far. Our organization, iEARN, is the world's largest educational network online. In the United States, we work with about 2,000 schools, but there are nearly 100,000 schools in the United States. It's humbling to see how much there is yet to do. Despite all the wonderful successes teachers and students have had, it's still a drop in the bucket compared to where the need is.
What fundamental beliefs have guided your work?
There is no one who knows so little that he or she can't teach another. And there's no one who knows so much he or she can't learn from another. That's a guiding principle for me. I just got back from Sierra Leone, in West Africa, and the talent, the wisdom, the knowledge, and the energy in the fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds in Sierra Leone is just mind boggling. For me, the guiding principle is to be constantly a learner and a listener rather than presume, and to know I can always learn something from someone there if I listen. That's what I've tried to do most of my life.
What is your mantra in the face of adversity?
That there are solutions, and that people are incredibly resilient. The more you rely on the young people who actually are the heart of our network, the more you find solutions. I have a firm belief that vacuums are filled. If there is something we need, or something we have lost, something's going to come forward to take its place and to fill that vacuum and meet the need.
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